During his media day interview, it took about half a question for Belmont head coach Rick Byrd to get in his first quip of the day.
“When you look at Arizona having four players over 6’10” that play…”
“Noticed that,” Byrd responded, deadpan, before the reporter could get to an actual question.
For those of us that have interview Byrd over his career, it was business as usual. Always ready with a one-line, the long-time Bruins coach isn’t one to show a lot of emotion before, or even after a game.
Even when he’s going into one of the biggest games of his career.
Byrd is making his sixth NCAA Tournament appearance with the Bruins, but you could easily make the argument that this is the biggest one yet. Not only are the Bruins their highest seed in school history, but Belmont is also in their first year in the Ohio Valley Conference, a conference that has recorded an NCAA Tournament win each of the past four years.
The pressure on the Bruins isn’t just exterior, although there’s plenty of that to go around. It has to be from within as well. Belmont’s seniors are in their third straight, and final NCAA Tournament. Among them is Ian Clark, the school’s all-time leading scorer, and co-Ohio Valley Conference player of year, a title he shared with an All-American guard a year ago.
But with that pressure, there’s experience. For the seniors, it is business as usual. And for the younger players on the squad?
“I think the experience we have on the team has to come out and set the tone, kind of paved the way for those guys that haven’t been here yet,” Clark said to the assembled media in Salt Lake City. “Once the blood gets flowing it will be like a regular game and guys can get used to playing in that type of atmosphere.”
Many prognosticators have labeled this game as a trendy upset pick in the first round mainly for one reason: Belmont shoots the three-point shot well, and Arizona doesn’t defend it all that well. While both of those statements are true, there is some reason to be concerned about the Bruins shooting.
Belmont didn’t shoot the lights out in Nashville in the OVC Tournament. In fact the Bruins combined to shoot just 11-43 from 3-point in their two tournament games, which is just above 25%. Shooting numbers often seem to fall in tournament situations, at least they appear to, as teams play in gyms they’re not used to.
Just don’t expect Clark to use that as an excuse.
“That’s the reason we had the shoot around today to get used to the rims and the court and the depth perception,” Clark said.
All talks of a Clark slump appeared to go out the window in the OVC Tournament semifinals. After struggling for a few weeks, Clark shot 6-10 from behind the arc, although his team didn’t join in on his success. But he followed it up with a 1-5 performance in the finals. Take out the TSU game in the tournament, and Clark is shooting just 21% from three-point range since February 9th.
But three-point shooting is just part of the concern. The Wildcats are a much bigger team than the Bruins are used to facing in the OVC, and Belmont wasn’t exactly successful against the relative size they faced then.
Even if Belmont can score, Arizona isn’t a slouch on offense. The Wildcats average 73-points a game, and are 32nd in offensive efficiency, not far behind Belmont’s 12th.
So it can’t be all bad for the Bruins, right? If Belmont’s shooters are on their game, Arizona has struggled to defend perimeter oriented teams. And Arizona head coach Sean Miller isn’t just worried about the long ball.
“If you take that 3-point shooting away you’re going to be successful. That’s the furthest thing from the truth in watching them,” Miller said. “Their free-throw attempts from the point guard position alone and their ability to score inside 3 as a matter of fact, the percentage of shots they make inside the arc is one of the nation’s best.”
Not one of. The best. 57% shooting inside the arc led the nation, which is impressive given the Bruins didn’t have what most teams would consider a dominant big man.
Another strength for Belmont: turnovers. Belmont is 8th in the nation in forced turnovers, and the Wildcats aren’t a stellar ball-handling team.
So what will the game come down to? Byrd just hopes the math adds up.
“Ian Clark is shooting, I don’t know, what, 45ish, higher than that? So if he’s shootin’ 50 it’s 1.5 every time he puts it up and you would have to shoot 75 and nobody does that, except, maybe Arizona tomorrow.”